From CD #1:
I Dreamt That I Dwelt in Marble Halls
From an opera composed by Michael Balfe;
libretto by Alfred Bunn
Click to enlarge
Born in Dublin in 1808, Michael William Balfe is remembered today as one of the most successful composers of English operas in the 19th century.
His father was a dancing master, and the younger Balfe began his musical studies at an early age. A polonaise that he composed and scored for full orchestra was performed in Dublin when he was just 7 years old, and he played the violin in public for the first time at the age of 10. After his father died, he moved to England, where he played at concerts and in the Drury Lane orchestra while he continued his studies under various masters.
With the help of wealthy patrons, he moved to Italy for further study, and later to Milan, where his first dramatic composition had its début. It was in Europe that he began to develop his fine baritone voice, which was good enough to impress Rossini. The famous composer secured for Balfe an engagement at the Théatre des Italiens in Paris, where he sang Figaro and other leading roles.
Later he traveled again to Italy, where he continued to compose music and sang in a variety of productions. Returning to London in 1833, he found himself catapulted to fame with the success of his opera, The Siege of Rochelle, which opened at the Drury Lane Theatre Royal on October 29, 1835. Balfe's musical celebrity was assured with the nearly equal success of his next drama, The Maid of Artois. In 1838 the Italian Opera honored him with a commission; the work he produced, Falstaff, was considered by many at the time to be his masterpiece.
But Balfe's greatest triumph came with the first staging of The Bohemian Girl in 1843 at Drury Lane, where it played for over 100 nights. Translated into French, German, and Italian (La Zingara), Swedish, Croat, and Russian, the opera drew huge audiences throughout Europe and the Americas. Several of the arias from this work, including the ballads "When Other Lips" and "I Dreamt That I Dwelt in Marble Halls," soon became popular concert pieces and remained familiar to music-loving audiences in Joyce's day. His use of the latter song in Dubliners (in the short stories "Clay" and "Eveline") as a plot device is not only literary but also historically accurate.
Balfe enjoyed uninterrupted acclaim throughout his career. The operas he composed (and the list is a long one) were sung everywhere, and they included:
- The Daughter of St. Mark (1844)
- The Enchantress (1845)
- The Rose of Castile (1857)
- Satanella (1858)
- The Armorer of Nantes (1863)
- Blanche d Nevers (1863)
- The Knight of the Leopard, or Il Talismano (1874)
- Moro, the Painter of Antwerp, or Pittore e Duca (1881)
None of these, however, enjoyed quite the same fame as The Bohemian Girl.
As theater, Balfe's works have not well withstood the test of time. He was sometimes called "the English Rossini" — and for fertility in affecting melody he deserved the title — but his work lacked seriousness of purpose. To later sensibilities, much of his drama seems shallow, the words almost nonsensical, and the tunes insipid. Where his reputation rests secure, however, is on the memorable and genial ballads he wrote. One of his harshest critics, George Bernard Shaw, once compared modern English music of the Bohemian-Girl school to "a jerry-built suburban square." Writing of his homeland's musical heritage, he griped that "the Irishman, lamed by a sense of inferiority, blusters most intolerably, and not unfrequently ... goes the length of alleging that Balfe was a great composer" (review of "Irish Symphony" in The World, May 10, 1893). But even Shaw had to admit Balfe's skill in composing musical ballads. In a scorching review of Tchaikovsky's opera Eugene Onegin, he acknowledged Balfe's mastery of the form:
For, although I have described the form of the opera as Balfian, it must not therefore be inferred that Tchaikowsky's music is as common as Balfe's — ballads apart — generally was. Tchaikowsky composes with the seriousness of a man who knows how to value himself and his work too well to be capable of padding his opera with the childish claptrap that does duty for dramatic music in The Bohemian Girl. Balfe, whose ballads are better than Tchaikowsky's, never, as far as I know, wrote a whole scene well.
(The World, October 26, 1892)
Balfe also wrote non-dramatic ballads (By Killarney's Lakes was one of the most popular) as well as several "art songs" and musical settings for poems by Tennyson and Longfellow. Come into the Garden, Maud, in particular, became a famous tenor show song. Retiring in 1864, Balfe continued to compose music to the end of his life. He died at his country estate in Hertfordshire in 1870.
In the center of the entrance foyer of the Drury Lane Theatre Royal there stands a large statue of Michael Balfe. The Victorian Web features a comprehensive overview of Balfe and his work. For a detailed timeline of the composer's career, accompanied by numerous historical illustrations, visit Basil Walsh's British and Irish World Web site.
The career of the English theatrical manager Alfred Bunn (1796-1860) began when he was appointed stage-manager of London's Drury Lane theatre in 1823. In 1826 he was managing the Theatre Royal in Birmingham as well, and in 1833 he assumed joint management of both the Drury Lane and Covent Garden theaters. Although Bunn was declared bankrupt in 1840, he continued to manage Drury Lane until 1848.
Nearly every major English actor of the time played under Bunn's management, and the artistic control he wielded over the two most important English stage was considered very successful. Largely through his efforts, English opera gained a foothold in the repertory. He produced many of Michael Balfe's most important works, and even wrote the libretti for most of them, including The Bohemian Girl.
Bunn recounted his life in the theater in a 3-volume book, The Stage Before and Behind the Curtain, published in 1840. He died in Boulogne in 1860.